Jeremy Seabrook Has Brought Deep Sympathy and Brilliant Insights to Writings on the Unprivileged

Jeremy Seabrook

There are few writers who have displayed such consistency and continuity in their writings on justice and concerns of the unprivileged as Jeremy Seabrook. His writings on these and other issues of high social relevance are marked by deep sympathy for those who deserve and need this the most. Readers are frequently awed by the sheer brilliance of his deep insights, made possible by his extensive travels combined with devoted yet joyful study of several disciplines, which enable him to draw very insightful comparisons from one place to another, or better still, the present times of one place with the past times of another place, and he can easily also quote various authors to make these comparisons!

This sometimes spills over from his writings even into daily conversation. Once emerging from our home in Delhi after heavy rains to take an auto rickshaw back to his hotel, he noticed the many puddles of water here and there. He stopped awhile to take a more complete look, and then said that this reminds him of England of industrial revolution days, and then referred to some pages from Charles Dickens, if I remember correctly, in support of what he had said!

It has not been easy to continue his kind of work over a long period, and it speaks for the tenacity and determination of Seabrook that he could continue for almost six decades. Starting in 1963 with New Society journal, it is only now at the age of 83, living in London with rather acute health problems, that Jeremy Seabrook has slowed down quite a bit.

During this period Seabrook has written extensively for some of the most prestigious publications including The Guardian, The Independent, The Financial Times, The Times, New Society, the New Republic, Race and Class and Third World Resurgence. In India he wrote a column for The Statesman for seven years which made him very popular with the readers of this newspaper, and also contributed to Outlook and The Pioneer for a shorter time. He wrote several plays for radio, TV and theatre, and for some of these he collaborated with his friend of school days, Michael O’Neil. He also collaborated with Anna Matram and Winin Pereira. His collaboration with Trevor Blackwell resulted in four books on radical politics. Perhaps his biggest contribution has been in the form of books which have appeared consistently since The Unprivileged  was published in 1973, a path braking work which traced his own family history across two centuries. This was followed by ‘A Lasting Relationship’ (1976) and ‘What Went Wrong’, a review of life under Labor Governments which was published in the USA under the telltale subtitle—‘Why Hasn’t Having More Made People Happier’ (1977). A memoir Mother and Son appeared in 1980. Unemployment (1983) was a critique of Thatcher’s Britain. This was followed by ‘Ideas of Neighborhood’ (1984) and The Myth of the Market (1990) and The Uses of Adversity. His travels in Thailand led to a long article on sex tourism in The Financial Times and subsequently to a book ‘Travels in the Skin Industry—Tourism and the Sex Industry’.

He approached the world of children with the same concerns of justice in his books ‘Working Class Children’ (1982), ‘Orphans’ , ‘Toys’ and ‘Children of Other Worlds—Exploitation in the Global World’. In this last-mentioned book he compared Bangladesh child workers today with child workers in Britain in the 19th century. At the other end of age-groups he also wrote extensively on elderly people.

A frequent subject of his books was poverty. These books include ‘Pauper Land—Poverty and Poor in British History’, ‘Landscapes of Poverty’ ( 1985) and ‘A Guide to World Poverty’, (2007), the last one written for the ‘No-Nonsense’  Series of books brought out by the New Internationalist. In this series Seabrook also wrote ‘The Guide to Class, Caste and Hierarchy’ (2005). Seabrook’s book, ‘In the Cities of the South’(1996), was rated as as one of the best books by the New Internationalist, while another much appreciated book was ‘Victims of Development—Resistance and Alternatives ( 1993).

During the eighties he started coming increasingly to India and Bangladesh, resulting in several books and collaborations, starting with ‘Life and Labor in A Bombay Slum’ (1987). His was followed by ‘Notes from Another India’, which consisted largely of reports on several grassroots struggles and was very welcomed by activist groups in India. In Mumbai Seabrook came close to retired scientist Winin Pereira and together they wrote some important books and articles including ‘Asking the Earth’ and ‘Global Parasites’. Jeremy Seabrook also collaborated with Imran Ahmed Sidiqi to write ‘People without History’.

In Bangladesh Seabrook wrote a book ‘Freedom Unfinished—Fundamentalism and Popular Resistance in Bangladesh Today’. His reports on garment workers from here were regarded as very significant. He carried this work further with other research on the garment industry to write a remarkable book ‘The Song of the Shirt’, a book which takes the reader across several countries and centuries and was described by the Guardian as a masterpiece. This as well as another book of his later years ‘The Refuge and the Fortress—Britain and the Flight from Tyranny’ have been widely appreciated.

As is evident from a such rich collection of work and the remarkable continuity of justice based concerns, the work of Jeremy Seabrook has been one of the most valuable contributions from any writer in recent times. As he copes with several health problems in the middle of increasing difficulties, Jeremy has the good wishes of at least two generations of innumerable readers and admirers spread over several countries.

On a more personal note, Jeremy became a close friend of our family as well as extended family of activist friends over a period of several decades. He has this endearing habit of making longer-term friends and as I introduced him to several activists in India, for several years after his visit I would continue to get inquiries regarding his well-being and when he is coming next. Unlike several other friends from western countries who confined their contacts only till a working relationship lasted, Jeremy has this desire of maintaining longer-term relationships and so would have several friends coming to meet him at the time of his several visits to India. This article is also my way of telling Jeremy that they all wish him an early recovery and good health.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and Man over Machine.

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